Friday, August 10, 2012

Shanghai Dock

The Shanghai Dock by Ross Island from a 1924 map showing the location of the Columbia Shipbuilding Co. shipyard.

Every now and then, over the last several decades, I have happened upon the mention of a mysterious "Shanghai Dock" reported to be somewhere down by the Ross Island Bridge. A "whole lot of shanghaiing went on there," it is told. So, it couldn't actually have been by the Ross Island Bridge, since that bridge wasn't finished until December of 1926, and the period of shanghaiing of sailors in Portland ended well before World War I.  Being something of a map lover I tended to ignore references to the mysterious "Shanghai Dock," knowing that no such dock had ever appeared on any of the detailed maps of the waterfront that I have poured over hours on end. 
One such reference that I ignored was a report on Shanghaiing in a 1976 Oregonian that said, "…shanghaiing was not confined to the Burnside area, but occurred all along the waterfront, even as far south as the Ross Island Bridge, a place known then as "Shanghai Dock."

Then one day I came upon a reference to the "Shanghai Dock" in the Marine Notes in a 1920s Oregonian. That prompted me to search in earnest to find this mysterious dock, and as often is the case, I was rewarded with a disappointingly mundane answer to the mystery. 

The answer to this mystery, and a great deal more information about Portland's old waterfront will be found in the pages of my upcoming book  Portland's Lost Waterfront: Tall Ships, Steam Mills, and Sailor's Boardinghouses, which will be published by History Press. But, I don't think it will spoil anything by publishing in this blog post an excerpt containing the paragraphs from my book that deal with the mystery of the Shanghai Dock.

On occasion someone recalls that their great uncle (or someone) worked at a mysterious place called "Shanghai Dock" down by where the Ross Island Bridge crosses the river. This dock has been mentioned as proof that shanghaiing went on as far up river as Ross Island. The facts are far less romantic, and occur in an era that is slightly beyond the period covered by this book. 

In 1923 the Shanghai Building Company established a dock to load lumber for China at the site where the Columbia Shipbuilding Company shipyards built vessels during World War I. From then on the dock was known as Shanghai Dock, even after it was purchased by the Pacific Bridge Building Company several years later. It is almost amusing that this dock is mentioned (in hushed tones) by those who wish to embellish a tale of shanghaiing that needs no embellishing. I do admit that the name has a certain charm and would make a great title for a volume of pulp fiction, or an adventure starring Tintin and Snowy.
So, the mysterious dock turns out to be nothing more than a lumber dock belonging to a company based in Shanghai. It serves as an example of what became of all the shipyards that lined the river during World War I—the period when Portland proved itself as a major seaport.

The infamy of yesteryear can be a distraction from the horror of the present. For instance, being fascinated by Hitler, while being  quietly complicit toward some sort of apartheid.  I can guarantee any readers of this blog that the sex slave traffic through our city today harms a far greater number of people in one year than the entire era of shanghaiing did over a period of four decades. The details of history, though—the examination of how powerful bullies can get away with heinous crimes, and the relationship of law enforcement to this underworld—this is a lesson that we can learn from Portland's era of shanghaiing. Once we are fully aware of the facts behind yesterday's horror, we may begin to look around us with a little more wariness.